Notes From the 2013 'Outside' Bike Tests
Lesson number one from this year's Tucson test: A full week of hard riding is tough this early in the season. Six straight days was nothing that a hot tub, some ice plunges, and a little bourbon (more on that in a second) couldn't remedy. But on day seven, I felt like an abused bike racing action doll—my legs seemed to come off.
For those of us who attended the whole test (precisely two riders), it wasn't just the volume that hurt. Every single day there were new riders on hand (meaning fresh legs), continued fast pace, and no chance to sit in. Nope, we weren't just riding around down there. My stats for the week: seven days on, 252 miles, 19,609 feet of climbing, 30 bikes. Multiply that by the 12 to 16 riders on hand each day, and you get a sense of the scope of our testing.
Lesson number two: a 26-foot truck might be good for transporting 61 bikes, but it's not useful for much else. We never got stuck (thanks to the expert driving of my wife), but threading the sinuous driveway was a time-consuming affair and we could only get within 200 feet of the garage, meaning lots of running bikes back and forth to the truck each night.
That brings up the corollary to lesson two: a good crew is essential. We had friends and racers from around the country who not only put in all the miles I demanded but gladly loaded gear, ran errands, and worked late every night to make sure bikes were charged and pumped and ready to go at sunrise. Top on the list was Mike Raney, co-owner of Over The Edge Sedona, whose patience setting up bikes, changing flats, fixing seat heights, and remedying catastrophes (like the crank that flew off one road bike) makes him the bike shop Buddha in my eyes. Corollary two: Slime is good. We pumped the tubes full with green goop against the pervasive cactus and though we almost doubled our tester miles from last year, we ended with just seven flats, less than a quarter of the carnage in 2012.
The final lesson: bourbon is one hell of a recovery drink. Three years ago, a friend of mine showed up with a bottle of the Kentucky whiskey, and ever since the entry fee to the test trip (now dubbed Bourbon Bike) has included a bottle per tester to share. We swilled the stuff like Gatorade at night, and everyone reported feeling great each morning (minus day seven). Coincidence? I think not.
Enough about the tests, though: What about the bikes? On the road, I can report that bikes continue to get better, faster, and all around more refined at every price point. There wasn't a bad ride in the group, from the $13,500 Bianchi Oltre XR right down to the $1,300 Scott Speedster 20. And trickle-down is better than ever: Case in point the BMC GF02. The tube shaping on this endurance-oriented bike derives directly from the Swiss company's carbon designs and smooths bumpy roads incredibly well, but this aluminum iteration costs just $1,800 (versus $5,500 in carbon). Likewise, the Shimano 105 components on the bike might be a bit heavier than their top-shelf counterparts, but performance differences are minor.
A few products were especially notable this year. The Trek Domane, the classics-oriented bike that uncouples the down tube from the top tube and seat stays for incredible compliance on rough roads, staggered every rider who tried it. There's lots of experimentation with what constitutes a road bike, as in the impressive new Foundry Thresher, a carbon bike from QBP with huge clearance, disc brakes, and a front thru-axle that several testers felt will make a great gravel grinder or crossover roadie. While electronic drivetrains continue to impress and tumble in price, Shimano's new Dura Ace 9000 is so clean-shifting and fast-braking that it reopens the debate over whether electric is really worth the extra money. And finally, just when we thought bikes couldn't get any lighter, along comes the mind-bending Cannondale SuperSix Evo Black Inc. A few testers found it a bit nervous on fast descents, but at 11.9 pounds for a size 56, it feels like cheating everywhere else.
The mountain bike stable was even deeper with innovation and lust-worthy rides than the road category. Biggest news is the arrival of the 650B wheel—it splits the 26- and 29-inch difference—and we had six of the tweeners on hand for the tests. Most interesting in the group was the Intense Tracer 275, a 5.5- to 6-inch sled that slashed up the techiest trails and had the downhillers in the bunch buzzing. Wheel size was the big topic of conversation, and, thanks to Scott, who sent us three identically spec'd Geniuses (900, 700, and LT 10), we should have some quantitative feedback on which wheel size is best for you. But after jangling through some especially rocky sections on 26ers, several testers wondered aloud if the days of smaller wheels weren't numbered.
Fittingly, then, as a whole it was the 29er trail bikes that impressed the most, and a host of new models are currently knotted atop the list of contenders for Gear of the Year. The 4.9-inch Niner Rip 9 RDO is arguably the sexiest bike out there at the moment, and it rides accordingly. The five-inch Yeti SB-95 Carbon takes the Switch linkage that we loved so much on last year's SB-66 and incorporates it into a lightweight 29er chassis that blurs the line between XC and Enduro. At 24.6 pounds, the 4.7-inch Scott Genius 900 SL is plenty light to race but so comfortable and exact that we haven't found a trail that it can't handle. And the 5.5-inch Santa Cruz Tall Boy LT Carbon is probably the most fun trail 29er we've ever thrown a leg over.
Finally, for sheer bling factor, nothing could outdo Open Cycles 0-1.0. This hardtail 29er from Gerard Vroomen, one of the co-founders of Cervélo, and Andy Kessler, former CEO of BMC, redefines fast. Our size medium tester, equipped with SRAM XX 2x10, Rotor Cranks, a Rockshox SID 29er World Cup, and Enve carbon tubulars, tipped the scales at a scant 18.1 pounds and is mopping up Strava records in our testing. Multiple testers called it "the fastest bike I've ever ridden."
One side note: a cold snap sent the mercury plummeting (okay, high of 46 degrees is cold only in Tucson) but many of our riders, who came expecting sunny and 70s, were gutting it out in shorts and short sleeves. Pearl Izumi saved the day with a shipment of warmers, hats, and baselayers, and Rapha chipped in with jerseys and jackets, so our testers could get back to discerning the bike chatter from the chatter of their teeth. Thanks!
Stay tuned for our continuing ride coverage and full reviews in the Summer Buyer's Guide, May, and June editions of the magazine later this spring. In the meantime, I'll be recovering over a bottle of Blanton's.